Past the mess…when a good system breaks down

Past the mess…When a good system breaks down
The Philadelphia Inquirer
By Jane M. Von Bergen, Inquirer Staff Writer
November 26, 2006

Eight months ago, I offered myself as a cheerleader for the messy masses – the disorganized, the pilers, the stackers, and the chronically cluttered.

What I really wanted was a cute little skirt and pom-poms, but instead I got a bucket and some rags, a couple of wastebaskets, and a box of file folders, and I went to work on my cubicle.

Readers responded with their own tales of messy-desk trauma. In confessing our messes, we shared a yearning to conquer chaos by conquering clutter. If only our offices were clean, our lives would be calm and peaceful.


A clean desk cannot prevent a crisis on the job. And when crisis hits, even
the best system can fall apart.

Here’s the lesson: Repent, don’t lament.

A well-constructed system, I’ve learned, can be battered, but won’t break.
And it’s worth the effort to restore one’s little office oasis of desktop

Various studies document, with greater or lesser reliability, the resources
lost with misplaced paperwork and computer files. In 2002, the Canadian
government looked at its own structure and estimated that poorly managed information was costing its bureaucracy $870 million a year in wasted time.

But the psychological issues of feeling unproductive and overwhelmed strike much closer to home, judging from the many readers who wrote in about their struggles to keep on top of their paperwork and computer files.

Like me, they fought, and often lost, battles with the e-mail dragon. The
piles of papers that represented things that must happen immediately gradually became covered with a fine layer of office dust or occasionally
bespattered by a cup of joe.

My fellow cubicle dwellers understood – and so did their bosses in their
windowed warrens. Clutter is no respecter of cubicle size or paycheck. Work in an office tower or work at home, the issues are the same.

To help them (and myself), I bravely interviewed the superorganized –
professionals who love filing systems, color-coded e-mails, and the calendar feature on Outlook. (They especially like the little bell! )

They tried to get me to use a label-maker. I resisted. They’d label their
shoes left and right if given a chance. I consistently figure that out on my

Did I mention that I now have a clean desk and organized files?

My cubicle compadres still stop by to marvel and mock.

OK, I do not always wash my coffee cup every day. In fact, sometimes I do not wash either of the coffee cups on my desk for several days, and I
sometimes accumulate three or four take-out cups, each with its remnant of cold coffee soured with half-and-half.

Last week, I called my organizer, Jeanine Baron, who had come to the
newsroom in March to help me. She had devised systems to deal with a backlog of files, and she had tried, without success, to get me to label those files with a label-maker.

I asked her: Am I a failure?

My e-mail in-box is down from 4,000 to 400, but lots of other e-mails are buried in folders that I rarely open.

My desk is clean, but my phone list, which I wanted to transfer to a BlackBerry, remains resolutely in another system on my computer.

“Sometimes people aren’t motivated for a reason,” said Baron of Streamliners Inc., of King of Prussia. (But I am motivated, Jeanine, really I am . . . )

“You are good at what you do because you are an idea generator,” she said. “They didn’t hire you because you are an organizing maniac. ”

That’s why I like Jeanine.

Yes, there is forgiveness for the forlorn and fallen occupants of offices and cubicles overrun by piles on the floor, dirty coffee cups, and scattered stacks of papers yearning to be read.

“We fall down, but we get up,” the Rev. Willette Burgie, quoting gospel singer Donnie McClurkin’s best-selling tune of the same name, said in an interview last week.

Burgie, director of student life at Palmer Theological Seminary in Wynnewood, can see the top of her desk now, but she has been a serial sinner in the messy office department.

When The Inquirer asked its readers to confess their messes eight months
ago, Burgie and others did. Some told heartbreaking tales of trying toconquer mounds of mess. Their sense of shame was overwhelming. One reader, chagrined, wrote about finding the bank statements from her real estate management business on the lawn in her backyard.

Another tried in vain to banish documents from her family business from the kitchen counter. A young woman worked as an administrative assistant in a pharmaceutical company – she had the job of keeping others organized, but couldn’t handle her own mess.

Burgie had hired an organizer, but had not followed through with the advice. When work piled up, Burgie got buried and so did her desk. Eventually, she pulled herself together and spent a week digging out.

“I wasn’t getting anything done anyway,” she said.

Her desk has been relatively clean for about four months. “I love the way it looks and feels when it is clean,” she said.

Some readers vowed to change and spent several valiant Saturdays beating back the mess, only to slide into chaos when crisis hit. That’s what
happened to Rob Schimmel, general manager of Royal Electric Supply Co., of East Falls.

New information-technology systems were on the fritz, and Schimmel worried more about that than about his desk.

“It got bad again,” he said.

It happens, said organizer Ellen Faye of Straighten-Up, of Cherry Hill.

“The reality is that our lives are so full and so busy that there are times the system is going to be dysfunctional,” she said. “During the crisis, you have to concentrate on the crisis. Your stuff will be there when you get back. ”

Often, it’s a matter of poor system design, said Susan Sabo of Organizers Inc., of Blue Bell. The messee may be so fixated on a clean desk that he’ll neglect the necessary analysis of work flow that could lead to a lasting solution.

Sabo thinks people should turn to a professional for help, particularly if they’ve run into trouble organizing on their own. “If you wanted to learn to play golf better, you’d get yourself a coach,” she said.

Organizing consultant Anna Sicalides of Berwyn acted as a coach for Jimmy and Rose Fasciocco. They described the mess they had made of their business, Fosh Plumbing & Heating Inc., of Springfield Township, Delaware County.

They had plenty of customers, but they weren’t billing them on time. The problem was that Jimmy and his crew prioritized fixing toilets and installing pipes – as they should – but neglected the paperwork.

That led to uneven cash flow and late payments to suppliers. Sometimes the company barely made payroll.

Sicalides advised Rose Fasciocco to create a standard billing sheet for the crew and to master a computerized bookkeeping system. In turn, Jimmy Fasciocco became more willing to handle paperwork because there was less of it.

“We’re not sweating payroll every week,” Rose Fasciocco said. “Payments are coming in on a regular basis. It is much better. ”

Some readers, like Jim Topley, the head of Crystal Clear Custom Pools, resolved to change – and did. “What a horrible waste of time and energy, and most importantly, what a poor example I’ve been setting for others in my organization,” he wrote in February.

Since then, he said, he and his assistant, the general manager, worked together to create new systems at the Southampton, Bucks County, company.

“I just became conscious of getting things in order,” he said. It’s made his life simpler and his business processes smoother. Most important, he feels he’s setting a better example for others in his firm.

“Just do it. Get it done and stick to it,” he said.

Contact staff writer Jane M. Von Bergen at 215-8542769 or